I missed this New York Times Magazine story last week but it has now been passed to me and it bears passing to you. Charles Siebert writes about zoo elephants, homing in on the “rescue” mission in 2016 that brought elephants from a piece of Southern Africa called Swaziland to Dallas as well as zoos in Wichita, Kansas, and Omaha, Nebraska. Siebert posits the rescue portion as a justification, a public relations ploy to get increasingly endangered creatures to the U.S. In other words, they might not be better off.
As Siebert writes, among other impacts of enclosed spaces, we are learning that captive elephants struggle to sustainably reproduce. For every one birth, two elephants die, according to the story. Nearly all of the elephants on board that 2016 flight—15 out of 17—were breeding-age females. One of them was pregnant. That elephant came to Dallas and, just two months later, had a baby named Ajabu that Siebert says the Dallas Zoo called a surprise. But Siebert contests that, arguing that the elephant had already been monitored for months by vets in Swaziland at the time of the flight. Too, the zoo shipped two of the animals to California to grow the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s herd in 2018, despite assurances they wouldn’t.
As charming as the photos of Ajabu’s early life are, the story presents an alternative narrative about what it means to keep elephants confined. Advocates for the welfare of the animals say putting elephants in enclosed spaces has devastating results, forcing the majestic creatures into behavior they’d never exhibit in the wild. The president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums maintains that American zoos can provide for the overall well-being of African elephants. It’s difficult not to read the piece and come away believing that, at minimum, some cutthroat, perhaps even seedy stuff happens in the process of procuring the animals for display. Read the piece and decide for yourself here.